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Democracy and the `Other China'

HALFWAY around the world from the tumultuous events in Eastern Europe, democracy has put its shoulder against another door that has been tightly shut for 40 years, and the door budged. On Saturday the ``other China'' - Taiwan - held its first officially contested elections since 1949. That was the year Chiang Kai-shek, defeated by Mao Zedong's communist forces, fled the mainland with 2 million followers. Chiang declared martial law and established a one-party state rigidly controlled by his Nationalist Party.

In response to growing political ferment, however, the government lifted martial law in 1987 and permitted opposition parties. Last weekend's legislative, county, and municipal elections were the first in which opposition candidates could openly run under their parties' banners.

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The Nationalist Party is far from relinquishing its power. The president is elected by the legislature, which the Nationalists still securely control.

Nonetheless, candidates from the Democratic Progressive Party made a stronger-than-expected showing. Receiving more than 30 percent of the popular vote, the DPP won 21 legislative seats - enough votes to initiate bills - and the top executive posts in six of the 21 counties. These gains are the more impressive given that the opposition candidates were largely excluded from the government-controlled media, and that the Nationalists enjoy overwhelming backing within the wealthy business establishment.

With the DPP's success comes a new challenge, though. Looking ahead to the next elections three years hence, it must mature from political gadfly into a responsible and constructive opposition, and where it has executive power it must demonstrate competence and policymaking skill.

Taiwan will not immediately shrug off the legacy of dictatorship. But in contrast to the land across the Formosa Strait, it has taken what appear to be irreversible steps toward democracy.

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